atheism, Belief, Ceremonialism, Christian Forums, History, Indian, Native American, Navajo, religion, Semantics
Not everyone has a religion!
More to the point at hand, the term seems to be an awfully bad fit for a lot of the things it is commonly used to describe.
When I was teaching on the Navajo Nation, I used to illustrate this by asking my students; when you hold a healing ceremony, who comes? The answer was always something to the effect of the community itself, friends, relatives, etc. What happens if you don’t believe in the effectiveness of the ceremony? Frankly, I don’t think the question came up very often, at least not in the context of deciding who belonged at the ceremony, but I did once meet a woman who had effectively answered it. A born again Christian, she stayed at the main house during the chants and entered the Hogan to help serve food during the breaks. She thus met her family obligations without implicating herself in a ceremony that was anathema to her own beliefs.
When I asked my students who goes to a church, the answer was invariably something along the lines of its members, believers, etc. Catholics go to a Catholic Church, Baptists to a Baptist Church, and so on. Of course this doesn’t mean that others aren’t welcome at a given church, but there is a distinct sense that the church exists for those that adhere to its doctrines. Those testing the waters will be expected to make a choice at some time.
Which brings me to another point, a religion can be modeled as a debate stance. Who belongs to a church? In many cases, we can literally trot out a range of statements and ask people whether or not they will vouch for the truth of those claims. “God Exists.” “Jesus rose from the dead.” You get the idea. Say ‘yes’ to the right statements, affirm one’s beliefs that they are true, and you are in the club. Say no, and you are out. Whatever else is happening here, it is a process of segregating folks according to an imagined argument within a larger community.
When I used to post on christianforums.com (CF), this was explicit policy for many years. Those who affirmed the Nicene Creed (or perhaps the Apostle’s Creed) could count themselves as Christian and post in the Christians-only sections. Those of us who could not were asked to restrict our posts to the open-debate areas. The policy varied in its details from time to time, and as I recall it changed rather dramatically a few years back, but when I was there at least CF policy fits the model I am proposing, membership in the faith, as it was defined on CF could be determined by one’s willingness to back a series of truth-claims.
So, what is the difference?
I’m about to paint it in pretty broad strokes, but I’ll warrant the paint gets more or less within the proper lines.
A religion is defined in terms of beliefs which consist of the willingness to vouch for the truth of a claim. A native ceremonial system is defined in terms of community membership and participation. Of course there is considerable overlap between the two. People expressed a number of beliefs connected with Navajo ceremonies, and churches can be remarkable community institutions. But as with any other questions of value, it is the priorities that count. Failure to vouch for essential doctrine gets you out of a church. It doesn’t get you out of a Navajo ceremony, at least it didn’t when I was there.
So, what is going on here? I would suggest, the point of the ceremony is at least partly to unite the community, to get them all involved in something of great importance to the community at large (the health of its members in the Navajo case). What is the point of the religion? Well it is at least partly to distinguish a select membership from some larger community. A religion isn’t simply about what group you belong to; it is about what separates you from those others. What a native ceremonial system unites, a religion divides.
Some might find that shocking, or at least counter-intuitive. Often when religious debates get rather heated, someone will lament the divisiveness of the issue and give a variant of the “can’t we all just get along” speech. The sentiments are noble enough, but I often wonder how many times people can see the process of division before it sinks in; that is what is SUPPOSED to happen.
Of course both ceremonial systems and religions unite as well as divide, but they do so on different parameters. The ceremonial system unites people along the lines of an established community, it gives people who share in a range of political and economic interactions a means of emphasizing their connections. A religion carves off a notch of those people and sets them in ideological opposition to others in their community.
So, this is my particular take on a running theme in Native American studies, the unfitness of “religion” to the understanding of Native American practices commonly described using precisely that term. The problem was particularly critical to the workings of a Federal law passed in 1978, The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which I happened to study for a bit. The law had a rocky history from the start, and at least in the early 90s (when I studied the matter) an awful lot of people were disappointed in its application to real life.
It was easy enough to say that various indigenous practices raised a lot of First Amendment issues. (Well at least it was in 1978; the prior history of willful abuse is dismal, and a topic for another post.) But actually extending Free Exercise protections to Native American “religious” practices proved very difficult. How do you protect the right to prayer when that might mean a lot more than a moment of silence or even a few words spoken in a certain posture? What do you do about ritual paraphernalia at border crossings? How about odd dress in schools or prisons? How do you deal with strange substances? Nevermind peyote; a simple smudge-pot can really screw up a paradigm! …and (this was the real sticking point) what do you do about access to sacred sites on public lands, especially sites that might not be so sacred anymore if someone builds a road or a fast food restaurant in the vicinity?
See, the problem was that native “religious” practices simply didn’t fit into the niche already carved out for religions within the American political economy. So, time and again, when Native Americans sought to enjoy their religious freedom, they found some official or judge who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) grant that protection. The necessary relief always seemed to be too much to ask, and the resulting case-law was dismal to say the least.
So, what was the problem? At least some folks figured it lay with the key term “religion.” It just didn’t fit. The practices in question may have included enough of what people call ‘religion’ to get the issue on the table, but they weren’t restricted to quite the semantic domain one normally expects of things described using that term. The contents Native American “religions” thus tended to spill over into other social terrain. Where western religions had learned to reside in the spaces between other public matters, their Native American analogs didn’t even come close.
So, if the term “religion” doesn’t fit, what does?
It really is difficult to answer that question. We can of course use the term “religion” anyway, but the warrant for its use is analogical, and my point is the analogy breaks down, often in really inconvenient ways. A common practice is to talk about native “spirituality,” but the chief benefits of “spirituality” seem to be that the term means just about anything you want it to mean, which is not an argument in its favor.
My own solution is to focus on the ceremonial practices. As the community-building functions of those ceremonies take priority over the argument-framing functions, those practices naturally stretch into social interactions well beyond those of religions. Of course this way of talking about the issue involves a judgement about priorities; it is a claim about what matters most. So, I won’t be too offended if someone opts to go another route.
Yes, I will. Let’s fight about it!
Anyway, what interests me about this is that it is the other half of a coin to my own situation when it comes to the subject. Religion obviously doesn’t do much for me, and as my last post ought to have established, I obviously think there is something about religion that is NOT part of my life and thinking. What that is, is another question, and admittedly a satirical post isn’t really going to nail it down. So, I am trying think my way through that issue (for the umpteenth time) by looking at people who may have a similar problem.
…and by “similar” I probably mean “opposite.”
If I as an atheist lack something falling under the heading of ‘religion’, the people I am talking about seem to have a surplus of it. Where the term denotes something I don’t want in my life, it denotes something that falls well short of what they want in their own lives. Where use of the word “religion” commits me to too much, it commits them to too little.
Either way, we have a problem.
The Hogan picture comes from the website, Virtual Tourist. It is part of the Navajo Museum and Visitor’s center in Window Rock, AZ. The sandpainting is from navajopeople.org which includes a nice description of its symbolism and ritual significance. The picture of Rainbow Bridge comes from Destination360. It was the subject of sacred site litigation in Badoni v. Higginson, one of many sacred sites litigated in the 70s and 80s.
Great posting. We of Cherokee ancestry use ceremony to restore balance and harmony. If you’ve cancer, a curing ceremony is to allow you, and others, to make peace with the cancer, not cure it. To restore harmony with Creator.
It sounds like your people have a lot in common with Dine’, including the central themes for these kinds of activities.
Indeed, but we lost our Dine’tah in the Trail of Tears.
majority whatevers tend to think that all baggage contains what their baggage contains. So, majority America packs into religion: morals, rules, creation stories, before&after life as we know it, community, mental balance, and ceremonies. I count rules as different from morals, because, for example, mixing fibers really doesn’t feel like a moral issue. I’ve not studied it, but would be willing to bet that other systems in the religion spectrum have things I’ve missed, and that many lack some of the listed items. The U.S. constitution tries to protect religion from government, and vice versa, but not cultural practices. So, some sort of definition of religion would be useful.
Thank you. I think your last point is especially important for the law I was talking about. Labeling cultural practices religion was a very conscious effort to tap into a set of legal protections. It worked in some cases and not in others.
This is a very interesting article. Was it ever tried to show that by not giving protections to tribal religious practices that the government was in violation of the establishment clause by restricting the practice of religion to only those like Christianity etc. ?
I don’t recall anything like that. Frequently, the claim was made that extra accommodations to Native Americans constituted a violation of the Establishment Clause. And certainly, there are phases of Federal Indian policy which raise serious questions about Establishment violations. For example, management of reservations was divied up and given to various churches in the late 19th century. The same for the native schools in Alaska (and by a fluke, both Navajos and the North Slope Inupiat got Presbyterians, so I seem to keep finding people subjected to Presbyterian authority.)
Native practices were criminalized in the 1880s with a renewed effort to enforce the religious crimes codes in the 1920s. I think that by the time the Feds were prepared to think about Indian religious freedom the role of churches had already become much more subtle than that. So, most of the discussion centered on the possibility of unusual free exercise provisions and the possible reasons for granting them.
Interesting. I find this story very interesting. We don’t seem to get much of this story in American History class, but more appropriately it helps define how the government has defined religion – a question I’ve never found a good answer to. I’m interested in understanding why (on a very practical level) tax breaks for religions is not in violation of the establishment clause. I feel that it establishes a preference for religion over no religion or religions not recognized as such.
Thanks for your article.
I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think a lot of the distinctions people make between religion and non-religion become very clear the minute a marginalized religion tries to tap the legal category (think Mormons, Santaria, Native American Church, Amish, etc.) We find out very quickly just how much of an exclusive claim on the concept mainstream Christians can expect to hold.
As t taxes, I am not sure myself, but I have two starting points I would pursue on the matter:
1) I think some of this may have been established custom at the writing of the constitution. Simply put, it may be that the religion clauses of the 1st amendment may have been tailored to fit established practice on that issue rather than visa versa.
2) I suspect the non-profit status of a church may be the controlling issue. So, it isn’t the decision to allow churches a specific exemption so much as a general principle that a business that isn’t expected to run a profit becomes thereby tax-exempt.
Now, whether or not some (or all) churches really deserve to fit in that niche is a couple of different questions altogether.
Those are just the things that strike me off the top of my head.
Very good points. I’m going to think about it … let it mull around and look for more information. I feel that the grant of privilege (via taxes) to some religions establishes a class of treatment for different groups of citizens. Some get this treatment, others do not based on beliefs (true or not) of their religion…. or lack of it. Further that disproportionate class treatment does in fact establish religious privilege because it favors a class of religions over all other classes, including no religion and Native Americans.
Gonna think about it myself.
Thanks for contributing. I look forward to chatting with you on down the road.
hmmm … the first rabbit hole I’m going to go down is this: by creating a tax exempt status for some religions/sects but not all applicants, it has created a class of ‘true’ religions and a class of ‘not true’ religions. This violates the establishment clause by creating a class of endorsed religions rather than endorsing a single religion. It violates the intent if not the letter of the establishment clause. Something that I don’t think would have been anticipated for the reasons that you stated.
Surely someone has tried it out. I’ll have to do some searching.
The prospects of unfair licensing is interesting, but I don’t know that differential treatment is necessary for an Establishment Clause violation. Read this book, The Establishment Clause a LOOOONG time ago. In it, Leonard Levy makes a pretty strong case against the notion that the point of that clause was non-preferentialism.
(Link Deleted on account of formatting problems.)
Even a general establishment is an establishment. The trouble is establishing that an establishment has occurred even at that level. Specific churches are challenged all the time, but I suspect a general reversal of this policy is a political non-starter. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Here we go:
It looks like your argument was the main theme main Douglas’ dissent,
Just a quick note to mention that I think I owe you another response. somewhere in the last couple weeks I decided to make it in a new post. If I can just get that one ready for prime time, I’ll drop you a note.
All jokes aside, I believe you have valid points here, I am not ‘religious’ either, however, I am ‘spiritual’, the difference is religion is the politics, doctrine and overly biased, ridged thinking on a specific theological matter, spirituality is the real nitty gritty relationship with other beings in the Universe, I believe in God, I also believe in Jesus, I just happen to believe they are very different from what is being preached in mainstream churches. (This is something I would love to ‘discuss’ with you sometime)
Second point, don’t even get me started on the Native Americans, I live with a Native American and this issue is very personal to me, and I tend to get angry at the selfish self centered attitudes of the “ignorant white people” who don’t even try to understand. I don’t think you and I are all that different, I think maybe we frame our beliefs in different ways. I truly would like to have a calm healthy discussion of this sometime.
I’m enjoying your comments, so let’s just focus on spirituality for the moment. On the one hand, I suspect that I would agree with you on many if not all the particulars. And while I might not agree with the beliefs you reference under the heading of ‘spiritual’ i don’t really think it’s a hanging matter. Contrast disagreement over the (non-)existence of Angels with the claim that homosexuality is evil, for example. I disagree with both, but the latter is the one with clear stakes and a definite chance to make me angry.
On the other hand, my problem with the distinction is similar to the one I was trying to get at in the Jesus/Religion piece from last month. I can think of at least 3 points of disagreement:
1) It is at least partly circular. You appear to be lumping the good stuff into one side and the bad into the other, which simply begs the question of how did you decide which was which. I may even agree with you on most if not all the particular values, but that doesn’t mean the distinction between religion and spiritual actually gives us a sound means of sorting them.
2) The term “spiritual” works for me as long as we are talking about relationships, but I will be saying no when it is applied to mystical powers. Phrases like “he’s in good spirits,” or “that was the spirit of the age” work fine as a description of mental or cultural states, but if the term is meant to denote a power, then I’m out. We can have that discussion too sometime if you like, or not at all. But for now I’m just noting the point of departure. As to a relationship with Jesus, I will of course maintain that the other end of that relationship is a null set. There may be a certain culturally established role for you to relate to, but the guy (assuming he did exist) isn’t there anymore to live up to his end of the bargain. Once again, I am simply noting a point of departure.
3) And perhaps most interesting, the particulars bleed into one another. For example, you have politics on the “Spiritual” side of the equation while you have relationships under the heading of spirituality.
But of course politics is a form of relationship. (In many societies, btw, the political categories are literally kinship categories. In modern America we only do that metaphorically …Republicans model their politics after the stern father while democrats play the nurturing mother, …point being even when the categories of politics are not close and personal, people still see the political landscape through the lens of more personal relationships.) If politics lies outside ‘spirituality,’ then clearly spirituality excludes a number of important relationships (and spelling that out might lead one down the road to an overly doctrinaire position).
And of course religious politics are not always a bad thing. We used to have a religious left in this country, and I can’t imagine African-Americans being anywhere near as well off without it. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in that movement were absolutely being political, even doctrinaire, in their reading of the Bible. If that belongs in the bad category of religion as opposed to ‘spirituality’, then maybe you have underestimated the value of religion after all.
This is why the term ‘spiritual’ just doesn’t strike me as useful. It’s too ad hoc, too easy to throw out there, and it just begs too many tough questions.
Anyway, that’s my initial take on the subject. I am traveling for a couple days, so I may not respond immediately.
Great commentary and insight! I am of Chickahominy descent and do not participate in any “organized religion” (unfortunately, my ancestors were forced into following the Baptist and/or Protestant religions as well forbidden to speak their native tongue). I do believe in the Great Universe/Spirit and Mother Earth.
Thank you, dollsofthewoods. Glad to have you following the site.
Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading: May 5th (Feliz Cinco de Mayo!) | amandatheatheist
Donald Miller said:
I like what you’ve written, although I do think that you have two essays in the one. So that has me a bit confused about which one to answer, and how.
I have reservations about the idea that NA practices aren’t religious in nature. They’re mythological, so wouldn’t that place them within the scope of religion?
In any event, this is very interesting. I look forward to sharing ideas with you.
We may be at cross-purposes with our vocabulary, but before I weigh in, let me just ask what do you mean when you say that these practices are mythological?
Well I’m about to get on a plane, so I’ll just give a quick and dirty for now.
I think there is only so much you can do with categorical relationships. X is a kind of y doesn’t handle social institutions very well,
So, addressing your question as directly as I can, I would say that these practices certainly do raise a lot of the same questions you get with religion, or at least they can. (e.g. is this or that claim about the holy people, the effectiveness of a ceremony, etc. actually true), but I don’t think those questions are nearly as central to the practices in question as they would be for the worlds religions. The reason for this is simple, people aren’t trying to accomplish the same things, or at least they weren’t (how this is all changing is another question).
So, for those of us who wish to stick to something akin to metaphysical naturalism, we certainly could stand our ground on a variety of claims made by native practitioners. But in this instance, and quite unlike the religions of the world, we would be the ones picking the fight. In myriad ways, I think the native practitioners demonstrate that the sort of debate I am talking about isn’t that central to their interests.
Donald Miller said:
Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I find the entire subject of what people believe and why they believe it very intriguing. I think Campbell has about as good a definition for mythology as any I’ve come across. According to him, “Mythology is other peoples religion.”
I would like to sort of jump in here if I may. I’m not in any way related to Native Americans in any meaningful way. I have no vested interest in political or social goals of such groups other than the betterment of society on the whole. It is rare indeed that I am in contact with those who are vested.
I have many thoughts about how the mammalian brain, human brain in particular, works. I would like to pose some questions to get your opinions. I don’t think there is a right or wrong, just looking for some guidance/feedback on what I’m thinking from those with more knowledge than I.
I’ll go ahead with the first one in the event that you will assist me. I believe that social patterns, though different from culture to culture, fulfil the same roles in each. That is to say that differences in culture appear to me to be variances on answers to the same problems or questions for each cultural group.
Many such questions or problems are addressed in recent times by psychology and therapy. In the past religion and spirituality have traditionally seemed to fill those roles. The question then (finally): How do you feel about the statement that Native American religious practices (despite questions of ritual) work within the society to address issues which are today often addressed by religion, therapy, and psychology.
That is to say that the contributions to society from NA beliefs/religion (I probably used a bad label there) support the society in the very ways that therapy, psychology, and religion do for other societies/cultures. Further that it is not simply ‘religion’ as it were.
Donald Miller said:
When I come across someone who looks like a very interesting conversation partner, I’m usually interested in finding out right off how touchy they are. I thought you might have asked me what I meant by “I have ‘reservations'”. The mythology surprised me. I’m hoping you aren’t touchy, because I’m looking forward to discussing things with you.
Welll I may be touchy about some things, but that wasn’t close. The term could mean a lot of things. Often it’s a straight up diss. Mythology is what we call religions regarded as clearly wrong ( a bit like superstitition. On the other hand, the Joseph Cambell (sp?) crowed have their own ideas about mythology and what it means. I’m sure there are other approaches that escape me at the moment. I just wanted to check bases before I responded. Anyway, I’m going to disappear for a day or so now. Take care
Donald Miller said:
Cool. I’m not too touchy myself, unless I know someone is deliberately trying to annoy me.
Joseph Campbell had quite an influence on my life. I learned a great deal from him.
Sorry that you’re going offline. I look forward to chatting with you when you get back on.
Donald Miller said:
I gave a close reading to your post. It’s very well-written and thought out. To hit on a couple of points that you mentioned–
I think every accommodation that can be made toward the needs of the NA population should be made.
A question I would need to ask you is are you really an atheist or are you a deist? Not that there’s much practical difference. But there is a philosophical difference and it touches upon some of the points in your essay. Native Americans are deists, and so the ironic part of that is that it doesn’t rely at all on a declaration of “faith.” There is a God, and saying that there isn’t just doesn’t make any difference about that fact.
Do I have that right?
I think it’s extraordinarily ironic and has a completely different perspective to it than does Christianity, for instance, where the member of the church seems to think that his God stops existing if someone else doesn’t believe. Whereas a deist doesn’t care if you believe it or not. Not believing doesn’t make God disappear, in a threatening and frightful way, as it does to the church-goer.
Just a quick note to mention that I think I owe you and Myatheist life another response. somewhere in the last couple weeks I decided to make it in a new post. If I can just get that one ready for prime time, I’ll drop you a note.
home, garden, life said:
Nice blog! Thanks for liking mine. 😉
And thank you for visiting.
home, garden, life said:
Really criminal what happened to Native Americans. Whites should be ashamed. Magical cultures squashed onto reservations…how can this be in 2012?
Brilliant, thank you, Dan!
Cripes. You used to live in the Navajo Nation? That’s how I came to the Southwest.
I was going to manage a computer system for the IHS. That’s a long complex tale which you will absolutely understand – when I say when I got bored waiting after several months. And they didn’t get the new system until a few more years later.
But, I lived in Chinle, shopped at Basha’s, the whole disaster. Had good friends, good times – but, moved on to New Mexico.
I taught in Chinle for 8 years, I think. Definitely an interesting experience, and unfortunately bureaucratic inertia was a huge part of it. People say it happens everywhere, but not like out that way. …not even close.
aj johnson (@ajjohnson32) said:
What great stories you have to tell, outstanding detail, I have enjoyed following your work.
You are very kind.